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Written by Timothy Sexton
Obviously, cats are the most recurrent symbol and motif and become the allegorical figure for unleashed sexual repression.
Swords and sword-like symbolism runs rampant throughout the film as well. The first appearance of this recurring motif is in the sword driven through the cat in one of Irena’s discarded sketches. Not long after, Irena shows Oliver a statue of King John of Serbia holding up a sword on which is impaled a cat. Oliver will use a drafting T-square as a sword-like weapon of defense and Dr. Judd’s cane hides a sword. The symbolic import of the sword is invested with Christian power to fend off the pagan power of the cat women.
Panther Cage Key
The existence of the key to the panther cage at the zoo and Irena’s ability to get to that key is set up early in film in a subtle enough way that it doesn’t seem forced and obvious. Both Irena’s rejection of using the key and her later decision to actually open the cage with the key make it a symbol of Irena’s repression of sexuality and the acceptance of the consequences of not long battling that repression.
Viewers may question why the male protagonist—it would be a stretch to refer to him as a hero—is a rather lowly engineering draughtsman. Not exactly the most glamorous job for the star of a movie. The answer to the mystery comes in the form of the job’s necessity for the creation of the film’s most iconic images endowed with symbolism. When Oliver holds the tool of his trade high over his head to use as a weapon against what seems to be an approaching animal, the shadow it casts on the wall transforms it into a cross, thus giving it the Christian power to battle back against the pagan abomination threatening annihilation.
In a movie positively overflowing with Christian symbolism, the swimming pool may be the most unlikely of all. The sequence in which Alice makes a mad dash to dive into the public pool to escape the threat she can only hear, but not see is one of the central set pieces of the film and perhaps its most famous example of creating tension through ambiguity. The water is what serves to protect Alice from the pagan personification of an ancient evil and this made manifest the fact that her clothing left outside the perimeter of the pool has been ripped to shreds. The swimming pool thus is invested with the Christian symbolism of Holy Water as a means of protection against infidels.
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